Ghost stories fascinated me when I was a child. Slipping into an eerie unknown territory gave me a slightly pleasurable chill in a dose I could take. Although I read ghost stories for pleasure, they stretched my world and, more importantly, confronted me with issues of good and evil against a backdrop deeper than the material world. M.R. James’ “Lost Hearts” is a particularly powerful example.
As I grew older, I became aware of the psychological insight the best ghost stories called offer, adding depth to the chills they offered. Henry James (no relation to M.R. James) was the great master of this sort of ghost story. The Turn of the Screw is a troubling, masterpiece that inspired a great, if equally troubling, opera by Benjamin Britten. James’ story has inspired an unresolvable debate as to whether the ghosts are real or are projections of the fevered imagination of the governess. Britten’s opera presents them as all-too-real and malevolent. What both the story and the opera show with devastating clarity is that the governess’ rivalry with Quint, whether a real ghost or a figment of her imagination, destroys the boy Miles, as conflicts of this kind always distort one’s sense of reality and destroy vulnerable people caught in the crossfire.
Turn of the Screw does not invoke any transcendent dimension beyond the tragedy in either the story or the opera. Some of the ghost stories by Mary Downing Hahn, such as All my Lovely Bad Ones, move in a more redemptive direction. Stories such as those by James and Hahn show us how victims and victimizers can be stuck, seemingly for all eternity, in a destructive relationship unless they are delivered. We experience this stuckness that feels as if it will never end in real life often enough.
Approaching the ghost story genre with my religious convictions, I am concerned with the possibilities God holds out to each one of us for all eternity. I am also concerned for how, just as one can do God’s work by helping a troubled person in this life, one might do God’s work by helping a troubled person who is stuck and cannot “move on” without help. An encounter with a ghost can give a fictional character and the reader chills as it does in “Ghost of Swiss Castle” and “The Dark Window” in From Beyond to Here. The Light reaching to us offer salvation can give us much deeper chills.